It’s a sunny morning here on the hill in Victoria. Tira and Rizzo and I are all in the living room listening to some music and enjoying the cool spring air. There is just something I find very satifying being in the company of my dogs. They are both dozing near me and I get the occasional glance or sigh. It’s a wonderful reminder that, all things considered, life is good right at this moment. I’m glad to have Tira and Rizzo here to remind me of that.
I’ve had a few random thoughts knocking around the inside of my head lately and this week seemed as good a time as any to toss them out to my readers and see what you may think about them. I offer them in no particular order and they are just things that made me go “hmmm” this week.
Dogs and Paychecks
This week I came across a great blog post by Victoria Stillwell called “Why Positive Training Is Not Bribery”. Ms. Stillwell makes some excellent points in her article and it’s well worth a read. But she used a familiar analogy used by many positive dog trainers that just didn’t feel right. It’s an analogy that I’ve often used myself but always left me uneasy for some reason.
Reward-based trainers will often make the comparison between rewarding your dog for behaviours and humans receiving a paycheck for the work they do. Stillwell’s version in her blog post is, “Imagine you arrived at work tomorrow and were called into your boss’ office. You like your job (pretend if you have to), and are generally quite good at it. Your boss praises you for your good work and tells you how glad he is to have you on the team, and then informs you that as of that moment, you’d no longer be receiving any salary.” And that’s when I finally figured out what has bothered me about this analogy.
What Stillwell and others who use this analogy seem to be suggesting is that if you do not use rewards when the dog performs behaviours, then they do not get “paid” and so they ask if you would do your job if you didn’t get paid for it. But this isn’t an entirely accurate analogy. Our dogs do get paid – they get food and water everyday (in mose cases). And this stretches the credibility of the comparison. We humans work for a full week or more without getting compensation where our dog gets something tangible at least once per day.
So am I quibbling over trivial details? I don’t think so. If we want our message as positive trainers to really hit home with those who don’t yet see the benefits of what we do, we need to have a solid message. On the surface, the “payday” analogy seems accurate enough and expedient but a force trainer or even a dog owner could quickly poke a hole in it. Our dogs get “paid” every day and a trainer could make the case that the dog should be motivated to cooperate with their human to make sure that the “payments” keeps coming.
Unfortunately, I don’t have a good answer for this. I don’t have a different analogy or clever way to reword this. A more appropriate analogy might be getting paid everytime we completed a task at work. Perhaps the case could be made that dogs don’t think at a complex enough level that they understand their daily feeding as a “paycheck” but the fact that dogs cooperate with us at all would lead us to believe that they have some sense of connection between doing what we ask and getting what they need from us. I would be very interested if anyone else has a different analogy they could share?
Just Fix It
Something I find surprising since crossing over to positive training is the number of dog owners who just want the “fix” for their current dog issue. It could be barking at the door or not completing the weave poles in agility or just not focusing on them when they want to work with their dog. As someone who approaches dog training from a behavioural point of view, I sometimes struggle when asked to just give a dog owner a recipe to “fix” their problem.
It isn’t that I can’t help them with their issue, I just need more information to go on beyond just the problem at hand. After all, it’s not like replacing a broken part in a toaster. If someone asked me “how do I put out a fire?”, I would not be entirely accurate if I told them to “throw water on it.” That solution might work for some situations but it isn’t necessarily specific enough to help them out. People frequently look for help when they are at their wits end and want the problems solved now.
It can be tricky to balance giving a dog owner enough of the right information without testing their already thin patience with overly long explanations of learning theory and behaviour modification strategies. Something that I have found to bridge the “information gap” is using the internet technology at our disposal. I try to get an email address and forward helpful information and links to online information to the owner so that they can dig deeper when it’s convenient for them.
So maybe I can’t solve the problem for them, but I will give them a few suggestions to pursue and try to provide as much background information to them electronically to help them out. Smartphones and tablets are making it even easier to get good information to clients without having to spend a lot of face time explaining things to them. I’ve also found that working with owners after they have had a chance to review some basic instructions that I’ve forwarded is much easier and more productive. It seems we now have the means, in most cases, to be as thorough as we need without spending a lot of time with the client explaining. Most owners will happily read what you send them and that makes things a lot easier.
“If A Million People Do A Stupid Thing, It Is Still A Stupid Thing”
The line above is a quote from a cartoon character. Opus the penguin was the philosopher and sometimes comic foil in Berke Breathed’s award winning comic Bloom County. Opus was lamenting the silliness of his penguin comrades in the Falkland Islands when he made his pronouncement but his words seem applicable to a lot of the dog world as well.
There seems to be no end to the ridiculous and sometimes dangerous methods people come up with to train and work with their dogs. There are popular books, television programs, and long established educational programs that still recommend outdated and potentially harmful ideas and training techniques.
Taking the wisdom from the words of a cartoon penguin, just because a lot of people do something with their dogs is not validation that it is the best way to do it. And just because a lot of people believe something is true does not mean that it is, in fact, true. Fortunately, there are some great people out there using actual science and research on dogs to develop safe, effective, and remarkably fun ways to train and work with dogs.
Allow me to introduce you to the Pet Professional Guild. The Guild is a recently formed group of pet professionals dedicated to providing educational resources to pet care professionals and the public that promote force-free and scientifically proven approaches to animal care. The Guild is open to pet care professionals and trainers as well as pet owners who want to learn more about working with their dogs. Their website provides a wealth of information for pet owners from book and DVD recommendations to articles on raising a happy, healthy puppy.
The Guild now has over 700 members in 17 countries around the world. Perhaps the most important resource they can offer dog owners is an easy way to find a force-free Guild affiliated trainer in their area who can help. The Guild website includes a page dedicated to helping locate your local Pet Professional Guild trainer. For more information on the principles all Guild trainers follow, please see this page.
So from me and the black Belgians Tira and Rizzo up here on our hill, here’s wishing your and yours lots of fun and wagging tails this week. Thanks for indulging my random thoughts this week.
Until next time, have fun with your dogs.
Photo credits –